The United States, Great Britain and Spain threw down the gauntlet Monday, submitting a new resolution to the U.N. Security Council that declares Iraq in "further material breach" of prior U.N. resolutions and orders Baghdad to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction.
But France, Russia and Germany, which oppose military action, circulated an alternative plan to pursue a peaceful disarmament of Iraq through strengthened inspections over at least the next five months. Their memorandum won immediate backing from China, despite Secretary of State Colin Powell's lobbying efforts with top officials in Beijing on Monday.
The rival positions set the stage for a heated battle over whether the council would back the U.S. and British demand for war now or the French, Russian, and German call for war to be "a last resort." The council decided to hold another closed meeting to discuss the two proposals on Thursday.
The showdown heightened fears of war, with Wall Street posting its biggest decline in a month Monday after a day of light trading.
Getting approval for the U.S.-backed resolution will be a daunting task. To pass, the resolution must have nine "yes" votes and avoid a veto by France, Russia or China. Only Bulgaria is considered a strong bet to support the U.S.-British-Spanish plan.
Eleven of the 15 council members have endorsed the idea of continuing weapons inspections, but the United States has dispatched some of its top negotiators to Security Council capitals in recent days to push for the resolution.
For some of the countries, such as Angola, Guinea and Cameroon -- poor African nations whose concerns drew little attention before they landed seats on the council -- there is the possibility that supporting the resolution may reap financial benefits from the United States. But members of the council who support continued inspections are also lobbying hard.
After the rival presentations, no council member indicated a change in its position. But several council diplomats said there was room for a compromise.
"The cards are on the table," Angola's U.N. Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins told The Associated Press. "Now I think we need to sit down jointly and come out with ... a common solution."
But U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte said the only way Iraq can avoid serious consequences now is to demonstrate "a major, drastic, dramatic change in the attitude that that government has displayed towards the issue of disarming itself of weapons of mass destruction."
Washington has reserved the right to wage war with a coalition of willing nations, but U.N. backing would provide legitimacy and financial support for military action and its aftermath. On Monday, Turkey's Cabinet agreed to host tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops, a key step toward allowing Washington to forge ahead with plans for a northern front against Iraq.
The draft resolution does not set any deadlines. But U.S. and British officials made clear they want the Security Council to vote by mid-March.
In a bid to win council support, the one-page draft resolution never mentions the words "war" or "military action." It doesn't declare Iraq in further "material breach" of its U.N. obligations, or call for "all necessary means" to be used against Iraq, as the Bush administration initially wanted.
Instead, the resolution makes just one demand for action by the Security Council -- asking it to decide "that Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it in Resolution 1441," which was adopted unanimously on Nov. 8.
Setting the stage for that demand, the new resolution recalls the tough language in Resolution 1441 that warned Iraq of "serious consequences" if it failed to cooperate fully with U.N. inspectors and provide them with evidence of its nuclear, chemical, biological and long-range missile programs.
It also recalls that "Iraq has been and remains in material breach of its obligations" under U.N. resolutions and notes that Iraq's 12,000-page declaration to U.N. weapons inspectors contained "false statements and omissions."
The resolution acts under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, making it militarily enforceable.
French diplomats said the French-German-Russian plan can be implemented under existing U.N. resolutions.
"The aim is to establish a timetable for Iraq's disarmament, program by program, relating to weapons of mass destruction," French President Jacques Chirac told reporters in Berlin before talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
"The Security Council must step up its efforts to give a real chance to the peaceful settlement of this crisis," the French, Russian and German paper said.
Russia also issued a strongly worded statement Monday saying it will use its "entire arsenal of diplomatic means" to reach a peaceful solution and asserting that Saddam promised Kremlin envoy Yevgeny Primakov that inspectors will not be hindered.
Despite the stiff resistance in the council, President Bush told U.S. governors earlier Monday that the resolution "spells out what the world has witnessed the last months. The Iraq regime has not disarmed. The Iraqi regime is not disarming as required by last fall's unanimous vote of the Security Council."
Top U.N. inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei agree that Iraq still isn't fully cooperating or providing evidence to answer outstanding questions about its nuclear, chemical, biological and long-range missile programs.
To demonstrate cooperation, Saddam must also comply with Blix's order to begin destroying all of Iraq's Al Samoud 2 missiles and the engines and components for them by Saturday -- also the deadline for Blix's quarterly report to the council.
Iraq has withheld a decision on destroying the missile program. But in an interview with CBS anchor Dan Rather to be aired Wednesday, Saddam indicated he did not intend to destroy his Al-Samoud 2 missiles.
In the evening newscast Monday, Rather quoted Saddam as saying: "Iraq is allowed to prepare proper missiles and we are committed to that." Asked whether the Al-Samoud 2 missiles are "proper," Saddam replied: "We do not have missiles that go beyond the prescribed range."
Diplomats said Blix and ElBaradei will appear before the council again on March 7.
Fox News' Eric Shawn, Jim Angle and Teri Schultz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.